Not for the longest time have the Miami Dolphins been an NFL team associated with macho, with brute force. You might have to go all the way back to when Larry Csonka was carrying opposing safeties on his back, thundering like a rhinoceros booming across an open savanna.
Any team’s image is partly drawn by success, of course, so the mere fact Miami has not won a playoff game since 2000 invites and hardens the perception of a team that gets pushed around. But it has been more than that.
This was the franchise that made national news because one of its players complained he was being bullied. The team whose coach before this season, Joe Philbin, looked like a Pentecostal preacher from the 1890s.
Neither is your team’s image enhanced when its color ensemble leads with aqua and its namesake is a bottlenose dolphin — which no embellishment of artist’s scowl or squint can make appear the least bit menacing.
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I think this is why Dolfans (“Dolfans,” itself a rather wimpy word if we’re being honest) were so delighted when their team signed Ndamukong Suh last year. It wasn’t just that he was a great defensive tackle; it’s that he was, shall we say, an ornery fellow. A guy known for mean, for personal fouls, even for dirty play. A grown man to toughen up a team’s flaccid perception.
A few emailers to me even made a fair point that the recent stadium name change was an upgrade on the macho scale for a club that needed all the help it could get. “Sun Life” sounded like a day at the beach. “Hard Rock” sounds like you’re in the mines with a sledgehammer.
All of this is why the past two games have had a turning-point feel for this franchise, and why Sunday’s visit by the hated rival New York Jets is a special test and challenge for this new direction.
Passing might be sexier. For certain this increasingly is a quarterback’s league. But in football, running remains the manly art of dirty fingernails, grass stains and blood. So what Jay Ajayi and this healthy, revitalized offensive line have been doing is the best thing possible in terms of an extreme makeover for this team’s image — an identity change, if you will.
“When you find your identity as a team, you can start working on those things a lot more during practice,” center Mike Pouncey said. “That is what we’ve been doing of late. [The Jets] play the run really well. But we’re not going to shy away from it.”
Pouncey’s unit loves the new look. Pass-blocking is passive; your whole aim is to not be pushed in reverse. Run-blocking is aggressive; you aim to plow ahead. As tackle Ja’Wuan James said after Ajayi’s second consecutive 200-yard game, “As many times as I can go forward instead of backward, I’m cool with that.”
A running mind-set says, “I’m coming right at you and you can’t stop me.” And Miami has done that not against just any defense, but against the Steelers and Bills, teams led by tough-guy coaches in Mike Tomlin and Rex Ryan.
“Those were two really hot defenses,” Fins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. “Those are known for being hard-nosed teams.”
Now come the Jets, who happen to lead the NFL in rushing defense and bring the mind-set, “We dare you to try to run.”
Well, on Sunday, Miami aims to run again. There is even brave talk about making history with a third 200-yard game in a row. Is that the challenge to Ajayi?
“Of course,” Pouncey said. “We’re trying to be a part of the history books.”
Said Ajayi: “To have that for ourselves, the O-line, myself included, it would be a great accomplishment.”
The Jets’ plan is clearly to stop Ajayi and throw Sunday’s game and outcome up in the air, into Ryan Tannehill’s hands.
It is a joust of wills before the ball is even snapped.
The Dolphins’ challenge is to make the past two games the start of a transformational change in this franchise’s identity, not a two-game aberration that will soon give way to Tannehill launching 45 passes a game and Miami hesitant to run on third-and-2.
“I just believe it’ll be more than a two-game thing,” Christensen said. “It’s not going to be 200 yards every game. It’s not that easy. But the fundamentals of blocking, running, possessing the ball — those are tried and true principles and I think we’re trying to build this on a solid rock that will hold, and it will hold up in December in Buffalo and New York.”
Interesting that he would mention division games such as Sunday’s. Start there to dissect the Dolphins’ recent woes. Miami has not had a winning season record in its six AFC East games since 2009. Since 2010, Miami’s 14-24 record within the division is the worst. New England, by comparison, is 30-9.
And if you doubt division games as a barometer, consider: Since 2002, when realignment to the current four-team divisions took place, 81 percent of all playoff teams (136 of 168) had a winning record within their division.
That is the most direct path to the playoffs, yet, for Miami, it has been the path least traveled.
That needs to change as dramatically as the Dolphins’ devotion to a running game has.